|Evan Pinkus/Associated Press|
|Mark Sanchez threw a career-high 26 touchdown passes last season, but turned the ball over 26 times, as well.|
Although he has shown flashes of being a franchise quarterback while leading the Jets to two AFC Championship Game appearances in three seasons, the jury is still out on whether he has the goods to get them over the hump after an underwhelming 2011 campaign. In fact, the Jets were so unsure about his long-term potential this offseason that they acquired Tim Tebow as an insurance policy.
With the pressure mounting in New York for Sanchez to deliver in a big way this upcoming season, I decided to dig into the game tape to see where he can make significant strides to become the franchise player the Jets envisioned when they took him fifth overall in the 2009 draft.
Here are four key areas for the QB to improve upon:
1. Sanchez must avoid the negative plays.
It is not a coincidence that the top 10 quarterbacks in passing efficiency led their respective teams into the playoffs. The outcome of the turnover battle typically determines the winner of an NFL game, and the league's top quarterbacks have mastered the art of avoiding negative plays.
In evaluating Sanchez, it was his carelessness with the football that stood out the most in my mind. He tossed the fifth-most interceptions (18) in the NFL a season ago, while also losing eight fumbles. His penchant for turning the ball over cost the Jets scoring chances and put the defense in difficult situations on short fields.
In addition to his struggles with turnovers, Sanchez must also avoid taking sacks in the pocket. He was sacked 39 times a season ago, the fifth-highest total in the NFL. Although some of those sacks could be attributed to the Jets' leaky offensive line, Sanchez could drastically reduce that number by getting rid of the ball quicker in the pocket. Rather than waiting for receivers to uncover on deeper routes, Sanchez can dump the ball off to his running backs in the flat to avoid coverage sacks.
Sanchez can also reduce sack numbers with better preparation in the film room. If he can start to anticipate blitz pressure prior to the snap, he can quickly identify the hot read and exploit vacant areas. Elite quarterbacks punish opponents for bringing five- and six-man pressures, and Sanchez has plenty of room for improvement in that area.
2. Take more shots down the field.
Sanchez improved in several areas as a passer in 2011 (completion percentage, passing yards and touchdowns), but took a step back with his deep-ball efficiency. He finished the 2011 season with only two completions of 40-plus yards, which ranked dead last among starting quarterbacks. That number is in stark contrast to the 18 40-plus-yard completions during Sanchez's first two seasons at the helm.
When I examined the tape to identify possible reasons behind the decline, I noticed that Sanchez hesitates before pulling the trigger on vertical routes unless the read is clean. He didn't appear to have the trust or chemistry with his receivers -- Santonio Holmes and Plaxico Burress -- to attempt downfield 50/50 throws on the outside. With Burress, in particular, Sanchez never developed the trust in his big target, which was reflected in his refusal to "alley-oop" vertical throws. Granted, Burress didn't possess the speed, quickness or burst to run past defenders on deeper routes, so Sanchez's reluctance was understandable.
However, the addition of rookie Stephen Hill should encourage Sanchez to take more shots down the field in 2012. Hill blazed 40 times in the sub-4.4 range during pre-draft workouts and enters the league as one of the most explosive vertical threats from the 2012 draft. He will blow past defenders on post and go routes, and that will enable Sanchez to push the ball down the field. If Sanchez is able to connect on a few deep balls early in the season, opponents will loosen their coverage on the Jets' receivers, leading to bigger windows and easier completions on short and intermediate throws.
3. Sanchez needs to focus on "connecting the dots."
The league's top quarterbacks pick apart coverage with a surgeon's precision, and it stems from adhering to a disciplined approach of taking what's available in each situation.
Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers will consistently hit the open receiver in every situation, and their willingness to attack the vulnerable areas of coverage makes them indefensible in the pocket. In some instances, this means hitting the running back routinely on the check-down to keep the offense on schedule, while simultaneously avoiding the long-yardage situations that typically lead to turnovers or negative plays.
Sanchez, on the other hand, has struggled to stay patient in the pocket and it has routinely led to costly turnovers in critical situations. Unlike the aforementioned elite passers who have mastered the art of stringing together completions to advance the ball down the field, Sanchez attempts to manufacture big plays, despite facing coverage loaded up to defend the sweet spots of the Jets' passing game. His hasty approach plays into the opponent's hands, and prevents the Jets from consistently winning close games.
If Sanchez is going to finally get over the hump and become an elite player, he must learn how to efficiently pick apart coverage with quick, pinpoint throws to open receivers in various areas of the field. From connecting with the running backs on swings and screens to hitting the tight ends over the middle of the field, Sanchez needs to utilize the underneath weapons to create better opportunities to hit Holmes on intermediate and vertical routes. It takes poise and patience to thrive while utilizing these tactics, but wins will start to pile up in New York when Sanchez adheres to the script.
4. Let the playmakers do the dirty work.
For all of the conversation about quarterbacks lifting the play of everyone around them, the theory actually works in reverse. Great skill players make quarterbacks better, and Sanchez should allow his supporting cast to help take his game to another level. He should work with offensive coordinator Tony Sparano to identify the Jets' top weapons and collectively find ways to repeatedly get them the ball in places where they can make things happen.
As I look at the Jets' personnel, the top players in the passing game are Holmes and tight end Dustin Keller. Both are dynamic pass catchers with the ability to make plays on intermediate and vertical routes, and both are nearly indefensible when facing isolated matchups. Sanchez should spend a ton of time working with both players on the practice field and in the film room to fully understand their sweet spots on the field.
For instance, Holmes is one of the best route runners in the league and he excels at working inside the numbers. He kills opponents on in-breaking routes like slants and digs, and is an elusive runner in the open field. Sanchez should take advantage of those skills by feeding him repeatedly on those routes and allowing Holmes to turn short passes into big gains. In addition, he should make sure his No. 1 receiver stays engaged by routinely throwing passes his direction. Most receivers are diva-like in their disposition and you have to feed them early if you want production late.
If Sanchez can develop a better rapport with his top playmakers, he will get better production from a supporting cast that can make his job much easier.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks